Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner, Geoff Pierson, Gattlin Griffith. (2008, R, 140 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 31, 2008
Based on actual events from the always entertainingly sordid history of the City of Angels, this period mystery/thriller/proto-feminist battle cry is drenched in the drearily sunlit details of Depression-era Los Angeles. It's a time and place simultaneously inhabited by both piquant reveries and full-bodied corruption. Tom Stern, director Eastwood's preferred cinematographer since 2002's Blood Work, bathes Eastwood's ever-elegant images in a sepia-tinted earthiness; there's precious little razzle-dazzle in this particular slice of L.A. noir, nor, considering the story, should there be. Jolie is almost sure to net an Oscar nomination as Christine Collins, a solid and loving single mother who works days as a midlevel supervisor at the phone company and whose 9-year-old son, Walter (Griffith), goes missing without explanation one otherwise lovely afternoon. Christine engages the LAPD, personified by the steely Capt. Jones (Donovan, looking like he's gnawing bullets). Jones and his beleaguered department are desperate for some good press following a series of corruption and brutality scandals, and they return Christine's son to her in relatively short order. Problem is, it's not actually her son at all, a fact Christine immediately points out, her expectant face crumpling in awful slow-motion. The LAPD, however, suggests otherwise, a heinous move motivated by a departmentwide inability to admit any sort of investigational blunder. Christine reluctantly takes this strange not-son home but almost immediately goes to the press and the pulpit (a righteously snippy Malkovich) to challenge the police to find her real boy. And that's just the first 20 minutes of a film that's nearly 2½ hours long. A testament to Eastwood's finely honed directorial skills (as well as those of screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski), Changeling feels half its length. As Christine's quest turns into persecution and outright torture at the hands of the increasingly pugilistic LAPD – the department's loath to admit any culpability on its part and eventually has her committed to a psych ward – she becomes something of a figurehead for women's rights circa 1928. She never relents in her search for the truth, even when that truth becomes unspeakably vile. Jolie plays the cloched Christine as an everywoman made heroine by virtue of her intransigence, and the performance does everything to make the film feel as gripping as it does. Changeling plateaus early, though, and it has at least two more endings than it really needs, including a series of courtroom sequences that stops the story dead in its tracks. Eastwood's grim handling of even grimmer subject matter could have used some paring down toward its histrionic ending, but Changeling is still one of the director's most assured and engaging historical horror shows.